Mornings we sit on the veranda, the three of us; for my father has long vanished into the reaching branches and tangle that surround our house, despite violent spats of slashing at the underbrush. He will reappear in the evening, a stack of papers under a looping arm. This is our world, this hill. It's early, and the air is still cool. A breeze shifts the top branches of the bougainvillea. My mother looks outward, toward her tomato garden. There is a sole survivor, a pinkish fruit she has been thinking about plucking. Today or tomorrow, she is not sure, but she has been watching it ripen all week.
My mother hums as she opens her slim Bible. She turns to Psalms. It is always Psalms, and the words drop out of her mouth like music:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
My mother reads chapter 121 at a leisurely pace. She seems to relish the milk and honey of David's language. She is drawn to his metaphors and finds company in his ambivalence. In a green felt pen, she has underlined a single verse, a passage she does not read to my sister and me, not ever. It is the rumination of the exile and the question must resonate. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
It's 1979, and my parents are missionaries in Uganda. We moved here when I was one and my sister Sonja was four and Idi Amin was clinging to a bloody dictatorship. We moved here at a time when those with choices flooded across the border: leaving, leaving, leaving. Later, we left too, but before we did, in those waning days, we met Idi Amin at the airport and shook his hand.
When Idi Amin fled to Libya, we returned to Uganda. We were glad to be back, or rather everyone was glad except my mother. Uganda is a beautiful land, and it seemed pregnant with possibility. My father fell happily into teaching and my mother less happily into scrubbing floors and walls. Sonja and I studied some, but mostly, we galloped about the house, climbing trees and dressing our guinea pig in doll clothing.
These years after Amin have been a time of elections and coups. My mother begins fretting again — she waits by the window each time my father drives to Kampala. She thinks roadblock. She thinks carjacking. She thinks one of us will die here. When my father is home, my mother worries about malaria and snakes and germs. Each morning, she turns to Psalms. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
After reading the scriptures, my mother kneels on the cement floor. We, her daughters, kneel beside her. We bow our heads and fold our hands and turn one ear to our mother as she prays for our deliverance. It is a prayer we have heard often, but the words are spoken with fresh urgency. A story has been passing like ashes from mouth to mouth, from mother to mother.
The story is this: A young girl climbed the mango tree, the one that sat between the dispensary and the college gate. The girl must have been the daughter of a new student for we have not played with her, will not, in fact, ever play with her. Still, I see her, slight and smart, ankles freckled with scars. She stops at the base of the tree, searching the dark foliage until her eyes rest upon the top branch, upon fruit hanging down like small, green hearts. Unripe mangoes, white-fleshed and sour, are best dipped in salt and chili powder. The girl stands, hands hanging at her side, eyes sweeping the trunk as she considers the best way up. I want to tell her — Keep walking. Today is not a good day for green mangoes — but she cannot hear me, and so she must hitch her skirt and dig her toes into rough bark.
A few men squat in the shifting shadow of the tree, paying little mind to the girl shimmying up the trunk. Fruit is communal, and we children climb with ease. The men squint against the sun and discuss everything except politics. It does not do to share too much of what you are thinking. Instead, they wonder when the rains will come. It is the dry season, and the leaves gathered overhead are coated with earth. They are still talking when the girl screams and, a breath later, falls to the ground, landing in the dirt with a thud. The men hover over the frail, birdlike form, uncertain what to do. Finally, one man turns her over, places burning fingers against the curve of her jaw, against the stillness of her artery.
A nurse sees the huddle and runs out of the dispensary. He is prepared to handle a broken arm, a concussion, even a snakebite, for my parents smuggle anti-venom for the clinic. Each time they visit Kenya, they carry back vials marked viper, mamba, cobra. The men are grateful to turn responsibility over to someone who knows what to do. The nurse directs one of the men to gather up the girl and carry her into the clinic. He lays her on a cot stained with urine. And that is all anyone can do. She died before she hit the ground, they will later say in soft voices, a refrain that will be repeated from house to house. Somehow this fact gives the story its urgency. Other children die and will die, but hers is the death we all remember.
The girl was bitten by a green mamba, a lovely snake — sleek-skinned and graceful. She was bitten several times, machine gun bites that leave a row of punctures on her dark, angled arm. It seems impossible that marks so small could amputate slender bones from breath and sinew, impossible that the green ballerina, gliding from branch to branch, bears death as well as beauty. Yet there lies the child, a girl whose mother will later kneel on dry earth, arms outstretched, lashing the air with the songs of her grief.
You are never safe. You are never too young to die. Those were the lessons, clean and simple, but my sister and I will not learn them. We are children, fearless in the tradition of all children, and there are many interesting matters. There is the starfruit tree to climb and dirt pathways to press into the jungle floor. There are friends to swap stories with and a Fisher Price record player with five unbroken records, and there is the neighbor's cat who just had kittens. For days, we have been longing to see them. It's all we can talk about.
"We'll see," my mother says. She holds a rubber band between her teeth and slides a brush through Sonja's nut-brown hair. Sonja sits on a stool between our mother's knees and scowls. She has a tender scalp and long, slippery hair that my mother pulls back into merciless ponytails and braids, a ritual I'm spared for my hair is cut short at the chin. My sister often dissolves into tears, sobs my mother has little patience for.
"Hold still," she says now. "Good grief, I'm not trying to kill you."
And then, unexpectedly, my mother shrieks. The nearly completed braid slips from her grasp, unraveling like a living thing. My mother pays no heed to the plait as she lunges for the screen door. We sit in astonishment, mouths agape, eyes alert, our whole beings wonderfully interested in whatever phenomenon has interrupted our morning. We watch as our mother hurls out the door and down the steps. She shouts again, but it is too late. A monkey has run off with her tomato.
The monkey lopes through the brush and up a small tree, cradling the fruit against his chest. He sits on a branch, his tail hanging down like an anchor, and faces my mother. He turns the pink tomato over, sniffs it and takes a bite, almost daring my mother to get out the slingshot. She stands three paces from the veranda, hands on hips as she weighs her options. She is a terrible shot, and the monkeys all know the radius of her anger. They gather on branches just beyond the range of her slingshot to observe and to mock, she is certain.
There is a fondness that monkeys command with their cuteness and their ease. They are deft and clever, and when they carried off our jackfruits, arms straining to encircle fruit larger than themselves, bodies swaying under the weight, my parents call out to each other — come quickly — as one or the other stands at the window and laughs. A brief truce in the war. The monkeys began it, my parents maintain.
Uganda's food, like everything else, has been vanishing. It is a disappearing act set to the pulse of soldiers. In Kampala, the boulevards are wide and the stores are stocked with empty boxes. We are lucky for the beans and rice we eat twice a day, lucky for the accompanying wedge of avocado. No matter what pestilence might befall us, Sonja and I can rely on avocados. Six trees lined the yard, and like diligent aunts they foist buckets of sustenance upon us. My father delivers most to his students, but four a day find their way to our table. Sonja and I abhor avocados and helpfully point out that even the monkeys won't touch them. My parents, who moved into the house delighted at the bounty of avocados, are in truth growing weary.
"Beggars can't be choosers," my mother will say and then make a point of praising the avocado's lovely hue and its vitamin value.
"Alright, avocado!" my father will said, scooting his chair closer to the table.
Sonja and I are not swayed. We grimace at our plates, hold our noses and stifle dramatic gags.
"Listen," my mother says in exasperation. "Skip the show. That's all we have, so you're just going to have to eat it."
To supplement our diet, my father cleared a plot of semi-level jungle and planted rows of peanuts, pineapples, and corn. The seeds, tilled into the lush soil of Africa's pearl, grew like Jack's beanstalk. The hearty leaves meant peanut butter to my father, corn on the cob to my mother. We would have peanut sauce on our matoki, cornbread with our beans, pineapple juice and fruit salads. Greedily, my father and my mother carried water down to the shoots, yanking at the weeds, which seemed to creep up each night through the jungle floor. The garden held the promise of a bumper crop.
A family of monkeys observed the flutter of activity with keen interest. Humans had been living in the house on the hill for years, passing through the jungle on cautious paths, keeping mainly to themselves. It was only the little ones who scattered through the underbrush, climbing trees and going where they pleased. The monkeys perched on branches high above earthly cares, combing fingers through each other's fur and biting the exposed fleas.
It was dusk when they came down from their trees to investigate. They spread across the garden, sniffing leaves so rich in color they appeared to retract the fading light. The monkeys began with curiosity, examining the roots and finding peanuts. They moved on to a row of pineapples, a prickly plant whose serrated edges did not say welcome. The monkeys, small magicians, reached soft hands into the hearts and pulled out ripening fruit. They approached the corn, still too young. The stalks offered up nothing. The harvest was over, but the monkeys gave themselves over to the tactile delights of annihilating a garden. They scrambled over the rows, leaving the plants above the earth that once embraced them.
"Well, so much for that," my father said as he stepped into the kitchen through the back door. He rested one hand against the wall and leaned down to untie his shoes. "The garden's gone."
"What?" my mother said. She stood at the stove over a pot of beans. To her right, avocados teetered on the chopping board.
"You're going to love this," my father said, the pleasure of getting to tell the story already taking some of the edge off his disappointment. "The monkeys came in and harvested everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything. They pulled up the plants, just to see what was on the other side."
"Oh Gary," my mother said. "Please tell me you're kidding."
Later, my father rummaged through the garage until he found a slingshot. He took it outside and walked about the yard, head tipped toward the earth. He did not take many steps before he stopped, reached down and picked a smooth stone. He tossed it in one hand, testing the weight. He hadn't used a slingshot since he was a teenager, shooting (and missing) coots, a practice he and his friends abandoned as soon as the girls noticed and disapproved. My father faced the jungle, hand full of stone, and he searched the trees for a victim. He hoped only to scare off the monkeys, to be able to grow corn and peanuts, to harvest a few jackfruit. He skimmed the surface of the trees until his eyes rested on a monkey who had been preening on a low branch.
She looked up, and they considered each other. The monkey was sleek, with a tan body, white chest. She was the size of a housecat and more curious. She scratched her back and watched as my father placed the stone in the sling, held it up, and closed one eye. The aim was nearly good and the monkey screamed as the rock slashed a nearby leaf. She rushed into the jungle, moving with a one-two swagger. My father smiled in the hollow of our yard and listened as the sound of breaking twigs traveled into the jungle, grew distant and disappeared.
The monkeys go nowhere. They learn only to know when my father carries his slingshot and when he doesn't. When he carries it, they slip away in deference to his aim and range, returning as soon as the screen door slaps behind him. When he doesn't carry the slingshot, they stay in the trees and chatter. The sounds drifting down are not alarmed, like the calls that warn of a mamba; they are just neighborly noises, with perhaps a hint of ridicule. We are smarter than you think. Which is not exactly true; my parents have begun to think that the monkeys are evil geniuses.
Try Ex-Lax, someone suggested in a letter from the States, the monkeys might get sick and leave. They helpfully included several bars of the recommended product. My parents called my sister and me into the room. As soon as we trotted in, we spied the slim package resting between our parents on the couch and eyed it with guarded interest. Boxes from overseas were hit and miss. Sometimes we would get candy, more often it was underwear or worse, hand-me-down underwear.
My parents held up the Ex-Lax. "This is not for you. It's to chase off the monkeys, to make them ill. This is not chocolate. You are not to eat this." Eating had become a great obsession. We climbed trees for fruit, picked bunches of sour grass, roamed the fields with other children in search of doh doh, a spinach-like vegetation that my mother would add to our meal. Doh doh was my favorite food. Sonja, more decadent, chose spaghetti and peas. These we rarely saw.
Our books were filled with fairy tales designed to make the mouths of small children water. There were houses built of gumdrops and licorice, cookies that galloped down country lanes, chocolate eggs won by diligent school children, and trucks that cruised neighborhoods, offering up music and ice cream.
The Ex-lax, with its crisp wrapper, balanced on my mother's palm. "Trust us, you don't want to eat this," my parents said once more, before plotting the downfall of the monkeys. The Ex-lax would go out in the evening, they decided.
In a pinnacle of self-control and filial obedience, Sonja and I gave the Ex-lax a wide berth. So did the neighboring children, who had also been warned. So did the monkeys. Only the ants were drawn to the slabs of exposed chocolate resting on a rock. After a week, my father retrieved the Ex-lax, ants running up his hand. The monkeys watched from the branches as if to say: we are here to stay.
My mother's response to the garden tragedy was to plant another, this one closer to the house. There was no room for a crop, only a few tomato vines. "I need something new on the table," she told my father. Together, they tilled the earth, planted seeds, weeded the patch of ground, and tied the vines to stakes, but it was my mother who found particular pleasure in the pale stems that rose toward the sun. When the first fruit appeared, she hovered over the plant like an anxious nursemaid, inducing Sonja and me to take our Fisher Price toys outside and to play near the garden. Constant vigilance, however, could not be maintained. Sonja and I grew tired of staying in the yard; my mother grew tired of posting herself in front a window.
As soon as the first tomatoes were big enough, they were picked green and placed on the windowsill, where they rot. The rest were allowed to ripen, both my mother and the monkeys biding their time, wondering how long they could wait before the other would pluck the fruit right out from under their noses. Sometimes my mother won, and a slice of tomato appeared beside our avocado. More often the monkeys won, the novel fruit carried up a tree and devoured.
There was only one tomato left when my mother called Sonja and me to come for worship that fateful morning. As she read to us from Psalms, she was not listening to the rhythm of the words or to the language that was usually violins and oboes; she was instead deliberating over when to pick the tomato. Today, she finally decided, just as soon as I put Sonja's hair into braids.
"Of course the monkey got it," my father will later say. "Murphy's Law."
"I don't know," my mother will respond. "I had a hunch, and I should have followed it." Sonja and I will add nothing to the conversation, listening only as the bitter tomato is tasted again and again.
The loss of the tomato puts my mother in a bad mood, worse because she is aware of how pathetic it was for a tomato to throw her off kilter. All morning she refuses to take us down to see the kittens. "I'm too busy," she says, looking up from a stack of papers. "Can't you see I'm busy?" Later, she throws clothes in the machine. "I have to hang them when they're done." Sonja and I lurk behind every corner, cajoling. But you said we could go after you finished grading. It's no fair. We never do anything fun. How will the kittens learn to love us, if we don't see them? You promised, remember?
"Why can't we go alone?" Sonja asks. We often roam the hill without our mother's protection; a trip to the bottom would not be so different. Of course, there is the mamba. We are all learning to live with this tragedy, though for the mothers it is the hardest. Few of us children knew the little girl, but the mothers see the event as both a tragedy and a warning: Watch your kids.
"All right, you can go," our mother says finally and tries not to smile as we dance about the living room.
"We're going to see the kittens, kittens, kittens," we sing to the tune "Ring Around the Rosy," our arms outstretched, our bodies spinning in widening circles. When we collapse on the couch, she states the rules: Stay together. If you see a snake, don't move. Take the road not the path. Stay an hour and then come straight home.
"Go and change into something clean," she says, swatting our bottoms as we raced past her and down the hall. "You look like something the cat dragged in."
Our mother is not watching as we set across the yard toward our usual shortcut, a mouth slashed into the jungle's flank. It is not an act of disobedience, but of habit.
"Didn't mommy tell us to take the road?" I say, finally. Trust me to remember, for I am the obedient one.
"Oh," Sonja says, and we pause at the edge of the yard, straddled between two possibilities. "We're already here." The unspoken knowledge passing between us is that the path is much faster. Yet there is something else compelling us forward, something we feel but cannot articulate: hypocrisy. We have been scrambling about this jungle for as long as we can remember, the danger of mambas no less then, no more now.
If I am a goody-goody, Sonja is pragmatic. "Come on," she says and plunges down the trail, and I follow as I always do.
It is a bright day, and then it isn't. A canopy of leaves mutes the sun and though it is the dry season, the air is cool and damp. The ground holds its own moisture and gives off a loamy scent of here and home that I will carry with me like a puzzle piece. It is the smell of crushed leaves, lemon grass, pods, and earth and something else. I will later breathe in this smell and then, only then, will I know I am back.
Somewhere on the trail, I elbow past my sister, anxious to prove I am small, but not slow. I hold arms out, part branches that swing shut behind me. The bush vibrates with insects, and a rattle in the elephant grass can be heard for several paces. Our feet are clad in flip-flops, the worn rubber slapping our heels as we walk. Grass scratches at our calves, and our steps perturb locust, which leap from one blade to another. They are large, and their sudden movements startle us. It is a delicious fear. A chance mamba gives drama to what would be just a random walk on a random day. We are edgy enough to sing — noise an inoculation against the snakes drawn to our disobedience. Children's books have taught us what happens to those foolish enough to disobey their parents. They burn a hole in their mother's favorite dress, eat all their Halloween candy and get sick.
The top of the hill, my mother reaches into the washing machine and pulls out damp clothing. She is pleased to snatch these moments away from us. She carries the basket outside. She is humming, always humming. As she clips a pair of jeans to the clothesline and leans down for another, she looks before she grabs. A snake once appeared in this plastic basket — jeans, then sheets, then coiled viper.
My mother had then used a stick to pluck each item from the basket. She picked around the snake, like it was a bit of avocado she didn't want to eat. Our water came from the rain barrel, the supply dependent on afternoon showers. It had not rained in days, and there was not enough water to rewash the clothes. She pulled out everything except a dishtowel, then she killed the snake with the jimbe, teeth gritted as the blade swept the air.
My mother now moves down the clothesline, pinning sheets and pants and dresses. She is tentative each time she reaches down, even as her mind is caught on the puzzle of the day — how to cook beans and rice and make it taste like something different. If only she had a tomato.
"I was hanging clothes, when I heard you scream," this is how my mother will always begin the story. "I was hanging clothes," she will emphasize. She was doing something ordinary, and then it happened. "My heart stopped," she will say next. Her fears jumped from possibilities to something past and present. An event had already taken place.
The cry she hears is continual, one long siren, and she is not sure whether that is good or bad, only that it is coming from the path, and she must hurry. She drops what she is holding and begins to run. The shriek grabs at her earlobes, so much screaming from two small girls.
My mother has always felt something dreadful was coming, and here it is, voices rising from the path. Gary, Gary, Gary, she thinks. Why did you insist on staying? My father: so sweet, so stubborn, so well-meaning. I'll never forgive him, she thinks. And then: No God, No God. I'll forgive him everything. Just let it be okay. Just let them be okay. She makes promises, extravagant ones. She promises God traits so entwined into her being that she cannot extract them — she will stop getting impatient, she will stop gossiping. She hustles down the path, holding each item up to God, as if He is looking for a trade, as if she only needs to offer up something big and delightful enough and God will return her daughters.
We are not so far down the path, maybe halfway down the hill. The noise is coming from my mouth mostly, gaping like a baby weaver's. Tears and mucus are smeared across my face. Sonja too is crying, though she has not thought to pull me off the path. We are both rigid. Don't move, don't move a litany through our heads.
I'm standing in a river of driver ants, my feet have vanished in the tide, my ankles nearly gone, my calves streaked, my arms and chest spotted. Ants are even crawling on my scalp. My legs are ablaze, the soldiers' pincers as sound as sutures. They say if one is lacerated in the jungle, driver ants can close the wound.
A thousand needles against my skin, and my mother nearly smiles from the relief of it. She yanks me off the trail, my two flip flops lost in the boiling path, and scoops me against her side. I am a heavy burden and a loud one. My mother clucks her tongue in sympathy and brushes at my feet. She jogs for home.
I am still crying when my mother carries me into the bathroom and heaves me into the tub like a sack of cassava. She does not say, "good grief." She does not say anything. She turns on the tap, we have no shower, and holds each foot under the precious flow. She cups the liquid in her palms and pours it over my body, stripping off my clothes as she goes. I am quieter, hiccupping. The tub fills with black, a film of ant clinging to ant. They try to crawl up the porcelain, back up my legs, some holding to my wet skin. It will be a long time before my mother can remove all the ants, wash them down the drain and wrap a towel around my body. It will be a long time before I pull off the last ant that has wedged itself behind my ear. Finally, I curl on the couch, looking down at my welts and whimpering. I am waiting to be scolded, but my mother sits silent on the couch and holds me to her side.
Later, Sonja and I go to our room to play. My mother returns to the couch. She picks up her Bible and flips easily to Psalms. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. She still feels the fear constricting in her throat, still remember the bargains struck with God. Now held, she sees the gift of protection as a frail thing. She sees her own two daughters as foolish and impetuous and no more worthy than another. What role does luck play? What role does God? She turns her head toward the wall and weeps. She cries for the child who died in the mango tree, for the mother who is still mourning.
-Sari Fordham (from Cerise Press)